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UPDATE: Fraudulent environmental containers stored in Columbia

Monday, April 5, 2010 | 9:23 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Hazardous material linked to a U.S. Attorney's Office investigation have been held in a storage space on Range Line Street in Columbia.

The Department of Natural Resources conducted an investigation in late January into space at Storage Mart Temporary Storage Facility, 2403 Range Line St., according to documents obtained through a Sunshine Law request.

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DNR investigators found 30 gas cylinders that might have contained "an extremely hazardous material that would ignite upon contact with air," though initial "investigations indicated no release," according to a department report.

As previously reported, Mark Conner, a DNR spokesman, said the department cannot "comment on the situation due to an active investigation into the matter by the United States Attorney's Office."

As a matter of procedure, the U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment on a case until charges are filed, Don Ledford, a spokesman, said. Ledford refused to comment on whether an investigation was active, referring all questions back to the DNR.

The DNR documents make no reference to radioactive material, though the original source who disclosed the situation described it as an investigation into radioactive gas.

The report identified the origin of the cylinders as Umicore, an advanced metals company with U.S. headquarters in Quapaw, Okla. Its president confirmed that the cylinders came from his company.

Richard Laird, president of Umicore USA, said the cylinders previously contained germanium hydride gas and were to be disposed of in Oklahoma by SMC Environmental Services, which listed a Joplin phone number and address.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires all cylinders that once contained hazardous gases to be disposed of in a specified manner, Laird said.

SMC Environmental, however, has never registered as a business in Joplin, said Lynn Onstot, a spokeswoman for the city of Joplin. The phone number listed for SMC Environmental on invoices is not in service.

SMC was represented by a Umicore employee, Laird said, who used a false EPA identification number when paid to dispose of the cylinders. Instead, the former employee, along with an unnamed partner, brought the cylinders to the Columbia location where they were eventually discovered by investigators with the DNR.

Laird said he could not release the names of the former employee or his partner.

Cris Burnam, president of Storage Mart, said it is against corporate policy to disclose the names of individuals renting space at any of its facilities, but noted that any lease would prohibit storing potentially hazardous materials including the gas cylinders. He declined further comment saying, "Corporate policy is not to comment on an ongoing investigation."

After discovering the former employee's misuse of the cylinders, Laird said he contacted the Environmental Protection Agency, which then contacted the state DNR.

On Jan. 27, department specialists Cindy Thompson and Alan Cortvrient initiated an assessment of the storage facility on Range Line Street, according to DNR documents. The following day, four more department specialists and investigators, as well as David Clark with the EPA, conducted a follow-up investigation.

While initial tests found no release of hazardous materials, according to the documents, investigators found several cylinders with hazardous materials markings. Umicore hired St. Louis-based Environmental Management Alternatives, represented by Peter Benoist, to remove and dispose of the cylinders.

"A total of 30 cylinders were observed, two were noted to contain some material by EMA personnel," according to the DNR documents.

Laird, however, said that the cylinders would have been empty as Umicore in Oklahoma has not used germanium gas in years.

The containers were eventually delivered for disposal to Veolia RS Technical Solutions in Sauget, Ill., said Rob Huisinga, sales and service manager for Veolia. Some of the containers have been disposed, while others are still in the process of disposal, said Huisinga, who was uncertain if any of the cylinders contained hazardous material.

Laird confirmed that the former employee and his partner are currently under investigation. The focus of the investigation is fraud, he said, not misuse of hazardous materials.

"It is our full belief that this was fraud," he said, adding that he thinks "there was no untoward use" of the materials.

The employee was put on leave in December and was subsequently fired in January, Laird said.

Umicore paid tens of thousands of dollars to SMC Environmental for disposal of the cylinders and other materials, according to invoices received from DNR. Laird said Umicore has not yet recovered the money from the former employee or his partner, nor have they had any contact with the two. He said he understood that investigators have been in contact with the men.

Umicore is also searching other sites where the two men, working as SMC Environmental, may have been storing materials intended for disposal.

Laird said his company is also looking into improper disposal of fluorescent lights in the Joplin area, while a number of other sites are under active investigation.

Umicore is cooperating fully with the U.S. Attorney's investigation, Laird said.

 

 


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